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Are we communicating better after 9/11?

We should be out of excuses by now


If 9/11 has taught us anything about public information and communications, it’s that people just want to know what’s going on and what they need to do right now.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, thousands of first responders converged on the sites of destruction, climbing through mountains of smoking debris and rubble in a race to find survivors. Ultimately, 8 EMS providers and 343 firefighters died that day and countless more have succumbed to 9/11-related illnesses from their time working at Ground Zero.

Read the stories of survivors, as well as how lessons learned are impacting the way first responders of today train and respond to incidents in our 9/11 coverage, sponsored by Verizon.

Starting out in my fire and EMS career – shortly after the events of 9/11 – I was able to see the increase in federal funding geared toward unified command and incident management training, interoperability and radio communications, and specialty hazard responses in general. IS/ICS-100, -200, etc., were all examples of post-9/11 training courses and much of their curriculum was geared around one focal item: communications.

Do others on the radio understand you?

Are you sharing information with law enforcement colleagues on scene?

Are you briefing the public on what’s going on and what they should do?

Each of these elements was identified pre-9/11, peri-9/11 and post-9/11 … and for some, remain continued challenges today. So, this question begs to be asked: are we communicating better after 9/11?

Radio communications

“10-4-9er” … yes, you heard a “9er” in there. What the heck does that mean? Seriously, who is using 10-codes anymore?

I hope not you!

It’s been well established that plain text communications are greatly recommended over the use of coded language for general radio communications. With the exception of emergent, discreet, on-scene Mayday situations, everything that you’re communicating to your dispatch center should be spoken clearly (not just enunciated clearly). Tell them you’re “on-scene,” not ”10-whatever.”

Beyond the grumblings of 10-codes and local jargon, logistics can also complicate radio communications. If your fire department or EMS agency needs to carry more than one radio inside of its units just to relay a simple response message to your dispatch center – or public safety answering point (PSAP) – then it’s pretty safe to say that something isn’t right (anymore). Why are multiple radios needed? Why can’t you simply switch radio zones or banks to get to another county’s dispatch center? Why are you communicating via VHF with one PSAP and 800 MHz with another?

It’s system and regional failures like these that still beg us to ask the question: are we communicating better after 9/11? If we’re not – if you’re not – then it’s no longer an issue of needing updates, it’s purely an issue of fixing communication failures.

Unified command

If there’s one thing that the fire service does darn well, it’s incident command. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about standalone EMS agencies or even law enforcement agencies (generally speaking). So, if your department/agency can’t answer “yes” to the posed question in this article, now is the overdue time to fix your unified command processes.

It may not be necessary for every firefighter and EMT to be intimately familiar with the unified command process, but it certainly is important for your chief officers, shift supervisors and respective colleagues in red, blue or yellow (that’s EMS) to get on the same page when it comes to unified command. This applies for not only to “the big one,” but also to your bread and butter incidents, too.

Public information

Which app or social platform does your department/agency utilize to communicate with the public? What information do you share? Who has access to share information? Have they received any formal training in public information sharing?

Communicating messages related to disaster preparedness, road closures, active fire scene incidents, fundraising events and severe weather all require a different level of finesse – a different appeal to effectively get the message relayed to the listener/reader. If your department/agency isn’t operating on an app or social media platform of any sort, then its active outreach audience is effectively no one.

If 9/11 has taught us anything about public information and communications, it’s that people just want to know what’s going on and what they need to do right now. If their action is “nothing,” then tell them just that. Without updated information and actions, the creative minds of the general public (including each of us while off-duty) are certainly capable of coming up with a far-reaching story and action items for others to take … whether they’re valid or factual is now a part of the reaction process directly resulting from a lack of up-front information.

How well does your department/agency communicate?

We should all be out of excuses by now. Money has been dedicated. Apps have popped up left and right. Notifications are instant. Structures and processes have long been in textbooks. 10-codes should have died years (now, nearly decades) ago. Yet, the question still begs to be asked: are we communicating better after 9/11?

If you’re not, then time is overdue to start fixing it.


Read more:

Are we more prepared for ‘the big one’?

Have we taken the lessons learned from 9/11 and truly changed our practices?

Tim is the founder and CEO of Emergency Medical Solutions, LLC, an EMS training and consulting company that he developed in 2010. He has nearly two decades of experience in the emergency services industry, having worked as a career firefighter, paramedic and critical care paramedic in a variety of urban, suburban, rural and in-hospital environments. His background includes nearly a decade of company officer and chief officer level experience, in addition to training content delivery and program development spanning his entire career. He is experienced in EMS operations, community paramedicine, quality assurance, data management, training, special operations and administration disciplines, and holds credentials as both a supervising and managing paramedic officer.

Tim also has active experience as a columnist and content developer with over 200 published works and over 100 hours of education content available online, and is a social media influencer on LinkedIn within the EMS industry. Connect with him on LinkedIn or at